THAAD and the Great Power Context II: Missile Defense and China-Russia Defense Cooperation

By | February 13, 2017 | No Comments

The 21st regular meeting of Russian and Chinese heads of governments in November 2016. | Image: The Russian Government

In the first part of the Sino-NK series THAAD and the Great Power Context, Anthony Rinna analyzed the THAAD question from the Russian perspective. He sought to elucidate the Putin government’s implacable opposition to THAAD deployment in the context of overlapping global and regional aspirations. In the second part, Rinna turns his attention to the question of whether successful China-Russia defense relations in Northeast Asia are actually possible beyond mere rhetoric. The answer is, he argues, contingent upon whether or not missile defense in Northeast Asia comprises a sufficiently compelling mutual interest for the two military powers. — Christopher Green, Co-editor 

THAAD and the Great Power Context II: Missile Defense and China-Russia Defense Cooperation

by Anthony Rinna

In response to the US Department of Defense’s decision to deploy Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) to the Korean Peninsula, China and Russia have announced a deepening of bilateral missile defense cooperation. The announcement comes at a time of improving Sino-Russian relations across a multitude of economic- and security-related endeavors, including energy and joint military exercises. The most common explanation for this relational uptick is that China and Russia are working in concert to undermine a US-led world order, albeit with Russia as the junior partner of the two. However, such a sweeping generalization of Sino-Russian relations is problematic. Beijing-Moscow ties are nuanced, dependent upon the particular region or issue in question. The study of China-Russia relations in the context of THAAD reveals a regional subjectivity in the relationship.

In April 2016, Chinese foreign minister Wang Yi stated that after meeting his Russian counterpart, Sergei Lavrov, China and Russia were in consensus regarding both the need for a denuclearized Korean peninsula and the dangers posed by THAAD deployment. In his statement, Minister Yi expressed the fears of China and Russia that THAAD could exacerbate strategic tensions in Northeast Asia, and that it would not help promote North Korean disarmament. Following this expression of consensus, the two countries reiterated their intention to establish some form of joint coordination in response to THAAD. Thus far, the two governments have been vague on what this actually means; details have not been made public.

Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi meets Russian President Vladimir Putin during a visit to Moscow to discuss Korean security, March 2016. | Image: CNTV

While the Chinese and Russian governments have both expressed a desire to implement a concerted response to the US decision to deploy THAAD, this professed intention risks getting lost in the narrative of ostensibly wide-ranging China-Russia cooperation. The notion of “increased China-Russia cooperation” is too broad for such a simplistic categorization, in no small part due to variation in the regional contexts of China-Russia ties. In Central Asia, for example, the dominant theme in the Beijing-Moscow interplay is geopolitical competition for economic and political influence in a region that is rich with natural resources and provides overland access to European markets, but accompanied by both bilateral and multilateral cooperation to combat terrorism.

In the case of Northeast Asia, however, the main driver in China-Russia security relations is how the countries can cooperate in response to the multitude of potential conflicts and threats to regional stability. But as they attempt to neutralize mutual security threats in Northeast Asia, China and Russia must also contend with their own bilateral tensions, centered in part upon defense postures in the Northeast Asia sub-region. As this essay argues, the implementation of a successful China-Russia defense partnership is contingent upon whether or not missile defense in Northeast Asia comprises a sufficiently compelling area of cooperation between two military powers that experience major strategic tensions.

Buzan and Primary Institutions | The first essay in this series employed the English School of International Relations as the primary theoretical framework through which to analyze Russia’s view of THAAD, specifically Regional Security Complex Theory. Continuing in the same vein; the English School’s view of international security categorizes relationships between states’ “primary institutions”, which Buzan defines as “deep, organic, evolved ideas and practices that constitute both the players and the game of international relations.” The four “primary institutions” that define interstate relations are: power political, coexistence, cooperative and convergence. Accordingly, China-Russia defense relations are currently in a state of coexistence, with the possibility that they will evolve into cooperation.1)Barry Buzan, “The English School: A neglected approach to International Security Studies.” Security Dialogue 46, no. 2 (2015): 126-143.

In general, Russia enjoys favorable opinion among the rump Chinese populace, albeit with a widespread negative view among nationalists, who cite historic tensions and past conflicts, with some going as far as to say that Russia and the USSR did more damage to China than the Japanese managed to do.2)А. В. “‘Китайская мечта’ и будущее России” [A. V. Lukin, “The “Chinese Dream” and Russia’s future] Россия в глобальной политике [Russia in Global Affairs] 2 (2010). While Russia’s developing relations with China are often framed in the context of Russia’s “pivot to the East,” post-Soviet Russia’s policy of developing strong ties with China go back to the first years of the Russian Federation. Russia’s turn toward China during the Yeltsin presidency may have been based in part on pressure from Russian nationalists, who saw a stronger Russian relationship with China as part of a strategy to counterbalance US hegemony. Chinese and Russian desires to align themselves to balance the US reached a new sense of urgency at the turn of the 21st century with the NATO bombing of Kosovo and the US invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, the absence of an imminent Western threat to either China or Russia has muted Sino-Russian rapprochement in the field of security ties.3)Andrew Kuchins, “Russia and China: the ambivalent embrace,” Current History 106, no. 702 (2007): 323.

In recent years, China and Russia have engaged in an increasing number of joint military drills. In most cases, the focus has been on fostering mutual transparency regarding respective military capabilities. Such bilateral drills include the joint Chinese-Russian drills of August 2015, which combined air and naval capabilities in the East Sea/Sea of Japan, and the naval drills between the two countries in 2016, which took place in the South China Sea. As these combined exercises were held in areas that are not contested by China and Russia, they send a signal to the US that Russia and China are in a genuine security partnership.4)Richard Weitz, Parsing Chinese-Russian Military Exercises (Army War College, Carlisle Barracks PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2015.

Underlying Reasons For China-Russia Cooperation on THAAD | Regardless of the minutiae of Sino-Russian consolidated action against THAAD, there are nonetheless broader political considerations in the two sides’ bilateral relationship that will have to be taken into account if we are to better understand what coordinated countermeasures to THAAD might entail. When analyzing the basis of China and Russia’s common critique of the US plan to install THAAD in South Korea, one must remember that the main concern is not simply the containment of US power, but rather (again, from the Chinese and Russian perspective) the consequences of a more assertive American posture in the region in terms of stoking local conflicts and instability. Yet if, as asserted in the first part of this series, THAAD missiles do not pose a direct threat to the Chinese or Russian homelands, the question becomes why coordination between the two countries is even necessary in the first place.

Russian foreign minister Sergei Shoigu inspects a Chinese honor guard during an official visit to Beijing. | Image: Xinhua.

Furthermore, Sino-Russian cooperation on missile defense hinges upon the notion that there are sufficiently few tensions between China and Russia themselves to make it feasible. While there may be room for cooperation between Beijing and Moscow in the arena of missile defense, this is not compelling evidence for concluding that the two do not experience tensions in other strategic realms. A case-in-point is the Northeast Asian maritime commons, where China and Russia are both building up their naval forces. This has much to do with the threat of a common external enemy, Japan, which has recently passed some of its largest defense budgets in years and undertaken a program of maritime buildup. Russia’s recent buildup of its Pacific Fleet is also partly in response to the potential threat from China, both in terms of the potential for China to challenge Russia on the high seas directly as well as the risk that, in the course of deepening Sino-Russian relations, Russia will become the “junior partner” in the relationship.5)Anthony V. Rinna, “The Northeast Asian Regional Security Complex: Japan-Russia Defense Relations” International Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 1 (2016): 41-53.

Of course, in the strictest sense, defense and military analysis must not conflate land-based missile defense and maritime security. Yet, while missile defense and naval defense are inherently separate, in the case of China and Russia’s respective defense policies they serve to underscore the lack of holistic collaboration between the two states. Even when the view of China-Russia defense relations is reduced to a specific sub-region of the Asian continent, China and Russia simply do not have a firm basis for collaboration on defense by way of an overarching threat that is capable of covering for strategic tensions between Beijing and Moscow.

Conclusion | The problems inherent in prospective China-Russia collaboration over THAAD underscore the reality that security is not neatly compartmentalized in the Northeast Asia sub-region. Even where China and Russia share mutual security concerns, they likewise view each other’s respective military buildups warily. In order for China and Russia to cooperate jointly on THAAD, a lack of strategic tensions between the two countries is necessary, particularly one that is sufficient to allow China and Russia to stay focused on the US and not degenerate into bilateral antagonism. Cooperation would also likely entail one country being the junior partner, which is not in Russia’s interests.

One could potentially argue that, given Korea’s position in the vicinity of both China and Russia, geography may induce China and Russia to cooperate in response to US-led defense initiatives. However, Korean history since 1945 has shown us that the presence of US forces in Korea has never provided sufficient cause for China and Russia to work together against a common threat. As such, Chinese and Russian cooperation over THAAD will only come to mean a lot in the event of a greater long-term threat upon which the two can mutually agree, one to which they are able to subordinate their own tensions.

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1. Barry Buzan, “The English School: A neglected approach to International Security Studies.” Security Dialogue 46, no. 2 (2015): 126-143.
2. А. В. “‘Китайская мечта’ и будущее России” [A. V. Lukin, “The “Chinese Dream” and Russia’s future] Россия в глобальной политике [Russia in Global Affairs] 2 (2010).
3. Andrew Kuchins, “Russia and China: the ambivalent embrace,” Current History 106, no. 702 (2007): 323.
4. Richard Weitz, Parsing Chinese-Russian Military Exercises (Army War College, Carlisle Barracks PA: Strategic Studies Institute, 2015.
5. Anthony V. Rinna, “The Northeast Asian Regional Security Complex: Japan-Russia Defense Relations” International Journal of East Asian Studies 5, no. 1 (2016): 41-53.